my Gleaner column of October 15, 2017
Research on a great Jamaican scholar who went to Oxford in the fifties has led me face to face with the exciting moment when the political federation of the Anglophone Caribbean was not only seriously being considered, it had briefly become a reality. By Jan 3,1958 the Federation of the West Indies was a functioning political entity and by May 31, 1962, it was no more. Most of us are only familiar with the famous statement made by then-President Eric Williams of the federal government of the West Indies when Jamaica’s departure put paid to the future of Federation: “One from ten leaves naught.” But what exactly were the considerations that led Jamaica to leave the Federation after a referendum by the then JLP government returned a majority vote against it?
Among university students from the Caribbean at Oxford, Cambridge and other universities in England the Federation was a political entity impatient of debate. In the West Indian diaspora that developed in England, migrants from different islands were forced to shed their national identities and band together as West Indians. To begin with, it soon became obvious that to the English they were all seen as having the same racial/ethnic identity—often misidentified as Jamaican.
As they settled into their new homes and workplaces the creolization of English cities began to occur, arousing the resentment of working-class English men and women who viewed the West Indians as interlopers. This pushback further reinforced the sense of a diasporic West Indian identity.
It was natural in such a climate for there to be great sympathy for a federation of the relatively small micro islands of the Caribbean into a larger, more powerful polity. This further united the university students from the Caribbean, who felt that uniting against common adversaries would give the West Indies a better chance of postcolonial prosperity. Today the plans for a Federated West Indies are hardly remembered and it’s well worth lingering on them here to regain a sense of why the idea was so seductive.
The initial push for Federation had been made by the British, who were increasingly reluctant to foot the mounting bills to maintain their fifteen colonies in the West Indies. There were, for example, seventeen governors, eight directly taking orders from Downing Street, complete with their individual staffs, to govern the 15 colonies or ‘units’ as they came to be called.
Many of the West Indians at University in England looked forward to returning to become citizens of the independent “West Indian nation state” proposed at the time. But Federation meant different things to different islands in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, it was synonymous with the politics of Chaguaramas, a piece of land leased by the British to the US in 1941 for purposes of maintaining a naval base there. There was tremendous political pressure to recover the leased lands for the site of the Federal Government but Eric Williams, the leader of Trinidad and Tobago was also wary of alienating the Americans by making such a demand.
It fell on J. O’Neil Lewis and William Demas, civil servants who had been sent to university in the UK by their government, now back in Trinidad and Tobago, to write a paper on the Economics of Nationhood laying out an administrative structure for federal governance. Trinidad and Tobago felt that the freedom of movement of persons enabled by Federation without concomitant movement of capital and investment would affect Trinidad the most, with other small islanders flocking to the oil-rich island for jobs. The Federation had to be able to intervene in such a situation by providing aid, funds for which could be found only if the region’s customs and income taxes ended up in its coffers. The Federal entity would also determine industrial policy for member states. Naturally, there was disagreement over such proposals particularly from countries such as Jamaica that felt it had little to benefit from such administrative arrangements.
There was no agreement among the 10 countries in the Federation as to whether the power to regulate industrial development, freedom of movement and the collection of taxes should rest with the Federal Government or the individual island state governments. For Jamaica, for example, the ability to use its own income tax and country revenues to fund its industrial development was crucial to its economic policy. The Jamaicans countered the strong-Federation model proposed by the Economics of Nationhood with MP18, a proposal for a looser federation of politically powerful units.
There was also disagreement about parliamentary representation for the member states. The Jamaican Premier Norman Manley suggested that it should be proportional to population numbers so that Jamaica with a full half of the population involved in the Federation, ought to have fifty percent of parliamentary seats available. Although a modified version of this and other suggestions of Manley’s were taken on board by the incipient Federation, in 1961, the people of Jamaica voted in a referendum not to remain part of the regional entity. Basically, Jamaicans could not see what advantage there was in a coalition with a number of, what they considered small, insignificant islands, and were suspicious of being governed by a government external to their territory over which they would have little control.
Had British Guiana and British Honduras been part of the Federation the Jamaican decision to leave might not have been so clear-cut for it was felt that their larger markets would have made belonging to such a federation a more economically viable and durable political decision. But for various reasons they were not so Jamaica bowed out, leading to Williams’s immortal statement “One from ten leaves naught.